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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The United States is one of the most religiously diverse countries on Earth. Over the next year, we're going to explore that diversity through spiritual music. We're calling our series Ecstatic Voices, Sacred Music in America. We kick things off today in Charlotte, North Carolina at the United House of Prayer For All People. As NPR's John Burnett reports, this African-American Pentecostal denomination is famous for its holy trombones.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Psalm 150 tells the faithful to praise the Lord with trumpet, harp, tambourine, stringed instrument and cymbal. In the United House of Prayer For All People, it's all about the trombones.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Tithes have been taken, testimonials offered, and the Sounds of Zion is warming up for another three-hour service at the United House of Prayer on Statesville Avenue in Charlotte. Nineteen trombones, plus a sousaphone and percussionists, are seated between the congregation and the pulpit, which is shaped like Noah's Ark.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: The holy trombones are not a supplement to the service. Think of them as an accelerant. The role of the brass instruments in this unique denomination is both to channel musicians' expression of the Holy Spirit and intensify the congregation's experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: The crescendo is almost unbearable. The back men are riffing furiously, while the run men, the soloists, are bent at 45-degree angles, flinging their slides with such force it seems as though they'll sail across the congregation. Everybody is on their feet beating tambourines or dancing in place. A few people leave the pews and step out onto the wooden area in front of the pulpit they call the threshing floor.

A slim woman in a red dress and red pumps, whose daughter sits quietly in the pew, has been dancing by herself in a sort of spiritual ecstasy. When the music stops, she doesn't. Her hands are up and she's speaking in tongues in the tradition of Pentecostalism.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) in the Lord...

(SOUNDBITE OF WOMAN SPEAKING IN TONGUES)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And I'm here to tell you that you must live right...

BURNETT: She is Gloria Hicks-Pauling. After the service, she says she's been a lifelong member of this church, but the services are especially meaningful now. She and her husband recently lost their jobs, then their house.

GLORIA HICKS-PAULING: And the music really helps. It kind of softens the heart. Kinda makes you happy, makes you cry, but you're not crying because you're sad. Right now I'm going through a terrible time but looking at me, you wouldn't know it.

BURNETT: No one knows exactly how trombones ended up in church. The groups are called shout bands. You can hear how the instruments shout back and forth, like a call and response or a gospel quartet. It's an intensely vocal sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: The United House of Prayer came into being sometime after the summer of 1926. That was the year its founder, a charismatic evangelist named Charles Manuel "Sweet Daddy" Grace preached a tent revival here in Charlotte's Second Ward neighborhood. Thousands attended. It became a phenomenon, then a church. Sometime in the 1940s, trombone choirs became a signature of the United House of Prayer.

ANDRE GUY: You know, when you're playing a horn, it's a revelation that you get from God, like we say to touch the people, to touch their hearts and their minds. And you get something out of it for yourself.

BURNETT: Andre Guy is the sousaphonist. Trey Epps is the leader of the Sounds of Zion.

TREY EPPS: The shout is pretty much like how we give praise, how we give God thanks for everything he's done for us.

BURNETT: Shout bands are an exceptional tradition in the great sweep of American sacred music. They're similar but distinct from the second-line bands in New Orleans. Shout bands are not particularly well-known, even though they play festivals and they've performed at Carnegie Hall. Cedric Mangum, a famed shout trombonist, says you pretty much have to come to church to hear them.

CEDRIC MANGUM: Our music is not designed for the dollar. We're not trying to make a living with this music. It belongs to God.

BURNETT: Mangum, who's a barber when he's not blowing his trombone, estimates there are 50 to 75 shout bands in United Houses of Prayer across the country. He says playing shouts is a way to testify about his life.

MANGUM: If I'm sick while I'm playing, I ask God to heal me. If I'm burdened down, I ask him to lift me up. That's what happens when I play.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: Joining a shout band is a commitment. In addition to Sunday morning, this church holds musical services six nights a week. Yet, the holy trombones of the United House of Prayer for All People seem to be doing just fine. Youngsters are backfilling the bands, keeping the continuity going. They don't learn from recordings or sheet music, they learn how to play shouts person-to-person from elders like Cedric Mangum.

MANGUM: When we're dead and gone, this music is gonna continue on. Continue on.

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News.

CORNISH: If you'd like to suggest an ecstatic voice for our new series, we'd love to hear it. Just go to NPRMusic.org and tell us about sacred music in your community.

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